GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
There's a man in Virginia who could quite possibly hold the key to a Mitt Romney victory in November. His name? Peter Su. Peter, tell me where you are right now.
PETER SU: I'm currently at the Woo Lae Oak Korean restaurant in Tysons Corner.
RAZ: Tysons Corner is in northern Virginia in Fairfax County, a county where Asian-Americans now make up 17.5 percent of the population. And when I spoke to Peter on Friday, he was at that restaurant where several Republicans were making a pitch to prominent Asian-American community leaders.
SU: Some are business owners, some are engineers, some are professors. And they're there to have a dialogue with Romney campaign representatives.
RAZ: Peter Su is someone making a name for himself in Republican circles because in 2009, he managed to help Virginia's Republican Governor Bob McDonnell win his election with 60 percent of the Asian vote in northern Virginia. And that was a year after Asians came out overwhelmingly in support of Democrats and Barack Obama for president. So, how did Peter Su do it? By knowing where to target those efforts.
SU: For instance, in northern Virginia, there are four separate Chinese schools, each with over 2,000 families. In the Korean community, the Korean churches are very strong. Most families are church-based. And therefore, we were able to go into those churches. And we engaged the Vietnamese community through the Vietnamese veteran's association, through some of the Vietnamese community elders.
RAZ: Peter Su, who is Chinese-American, also had Bob McDonnell sit down for interviews with editors at small newspapers published here in the U.S. but written entirely in Korean or Chinese or Vietnamese.
SU: So that if there are language barriers for some of the first generation, they were able to read weekly, if not biweekly, something about Bob McDonnell.
RAZ: In recent weeks on this program, we've been looking at how the two campaigns are targeting specific groups of voters - women, Latinos, Jews. Today, we're going to explore the power of Asian voters, the fastest-growing minority group in America today. Our cover story: Could 2012 be the year of the Asian voter?
Peter Su says if Mitt Romney can replicate Bob McDonnell's success with Asians in Virginia, it could swing the state in his direction, which could possibly swing him the presidency.
SU: Because in a tight election, all you need is 40,000 votes swing one way or another. And in northern Virginia, there are 420,000 Asian-Americans. If they tilt one way or another, you know, it doesn't have to be an 80/20 situation. They just have to split the votes, and that could impact either campaign in a major way.
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MITT ROMNEY: As you know well, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders have a wonderful culture that enriches all of America.
RAZ: This is a new online video the Romney campaign is now circulating.
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ROMNEY: Today, members of your community are leaders in every part of our society.
RAZ: It's a pretty straightforward appeal - nothing flashy and nothing like the Obama campaign's. On the Obama website, you'll find a link for Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders for Obama with a slickly produced ad that features Asian campaign workers.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: As far as being an Asian-American voter is concerned, President Obama is very clearly the right choice to make. He has had more Asian-American Cabinet members than any other president in history.
RAZ: Now, here's the tricky part of the equation: Asians make up arguably the most diverse population group in America. The term Asian can include Indians, Pakistanis, Koreans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and many others. South Asians - Indians and Pakistanis - have been mostly pro-Democratic voters for the past decade.
Even with prominent Republican Indian-Americans in office like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and South Carolina's Governor Nikki Haley, polls show South Asians are more likely to vote for Obama than Romney. So the battleground, at least this year, is for East Asians, because as we'll hear, a majority of them are still undecided.
SHAWN STEEL: There is a tradition of not appreciating the rapid demographic changes in America by certain Republican consultants.
RAZ: That's Shawn Steel, the former chairman of California's Republican Party. For decades, he's been looking at the coming demographic shift in America. Within a few decades, white voters will no longer be a majority. And census projections show that by the year 2050, one out of 10 Americans will be of Asian origin. And so Steel has been shouting from the rooftops about bringing Asian voters into the Republican fold. And now, more Republican strategists are starting to listen to him.
STEEL: The future of the Republican Party has got to be with the Asian-American community because they're generally more successful and mindful of quality education. They have a strong entrepreneurial streak with a high percentage of small businesses. And for many of the Asian immigrants, they have a healthy distrust of government. They have a good fear and loathing of what government can do to them because they've - many of whom who have come from oppressive societies.
RAZ: Shawn, given that Asians supported President Obama in 2008 with 60 percent of the Asian vote going to President Obama, where do you see opportunities for Republicans this time around? In which states, and how can Asian voters put Romney over the top in your view?
STEEL: Well, there's about 10 states that matter that are swing states. Out of those 10 states, four have a percentage of Asian voters - reliable, consistent Asian voters. And they are Florida, Virginia, Ohio and Nevada. Hardly anybody knows that in Nevada, 7 percent of the voters in the last general election were Asian. Most Republicans and Democrats don't know there are thousands and thousands of Asian-American media outlets in America. They're dying to get a press release.
And I think the Romney folks are beginning to get the word that you know what, 2 percent of Asian voters in Ohio is not a big number, but, hey, whoever's going to win Ohio is going to win it by 1 percent. So 2 percent suddenly looks awfully, awfully good.
RAZ: Last weekend, we heard from somebody from the Republican Jewish Coalition. He was telling us that he would be happy if Mitt Romney could get 25 percent of the Jewish vote. That would be the first time since 1988 Republicans received so many Jewish votes. John McCain got 35 percent of the Asian vote in 2008. What do you think would make this a game changer? What does that have to change to?
STEEL: That's a great question. My minimal target is 60 percent.
RAZ: Sixty percent.
STEEL: There is no reason...
RAZ: You believe he could get 60 percent?
STEEL: ...why Mitt Romney in this year with this economy cannot get 60 percent. It's there. It's ready. It's willing. Look, in very close polls, the one community that still hasn't made up their mind in terms of deciding for president are still Asian-Americans, many of whom are independent voters. So just on the natch, they're more open-minded. They're still available, and it's something that Romney needs to close the deal.
RAZ: And Shawn Steel is right. Many Asians are undecided.
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RAZ: Take the members of the Korean United Methodist Church in McLean, Virginia. We spoke to many parishioners there and found a wide variety of opinions.
YONG LIM: There are some certain social views that I identify more with the Republican, you know, the Christian views in, like, abortion, gay rights and things like that.
KEBON KIM: I'm a registered Republican. Last few years, I voted for the Democrats.
KAY RIM PARK: I'm a Democrat.
PARK: All the way.
LIM: But then there's another aspects of social programs, you know, for the immigration, helping the poor, and some government programs, I think, I identify closer to Democratic ideas. So I go back and forth.
DAN BONG: I came to the United States because I believe in American values and traditional values. I feel like we are losing that original faith and the value system.
RITA CHOI: I kind of think Democrat when I think of some social issues, but I'm also - I'm more Republican when it comes to economic issues. And religious issues, I'm more Republican.
KIM: I will vote Obama, yeah, definitely. I think we have to consider some of the underprivileged people.
BONG: If I vote today, I would vote for Mitt Romney because I don't see any other choices.
CHOI: I feel like there's no perfect party, you know? And I don't want to say, oh, I'm this or I'm that, you know? But I care about the issues, and I think something should be done, something should be agreed on.
RAZ: We heard from Yong Lim, Kebon Kim(ph), Kay Rim Park(ph), Dan Bong(ph) and Rita Choi, all members of the Korean United Methodist Church in McLean, Virginia.
Now, one interesting trend, particularly among Korean Americans who call themselves evangelicals, they may back Republican positions on things like gay marriage and abortion, but when it comes to the role of government...
JANELLE WONG: Asian-Americans show a very high and distinctive, I think, regard for having a bigger government with more services than do other groups.
RAZ: That's Janelle Wong. She's a demographer and the director of Asian-American Studies at the University of Maryland. Most Asians in America are concentrated in states that vote pro-Democrat, but that's changing too.
WONG: Because of their migration patterns into the United States, the vast majority live in blue metropolitan areas in blue states. So they're not in...
RAZ: (Unintelligible) California, New York.
WONG: California, New York - traditional immigrant gateways for Asian-Americans. But we are seeing larger populations in a couple of swing states - Nevada, Virginia - they're considered top destinations for Asian-Americans.
RAZ: So 8 percent of Nevada is Asian-American, 6 percent of Virginia. That's a lot.
WONG: That's a lot.
RAZ: I mean, that's a lot of voters in two states that are big battleground states.
WONG: Mm-hmm. Well, I've always thought that Asian-Americans are really the perfect kind of new constituency for either of the two major parties. You know, we're in a polarized electorate where any edge that either party can gain by courting new voters - there's not that many new voters out there. Where are the new voters? This is one, immigrants, right?
We know that 80 percent of Asian-Americans are foreign born, and being foreign born represents somewhat of a barrier to getting involved in U.S. politics. But once Asian-Americans become citizens - and they do so at a high rate - and they become registered voters, they actually vote at the same rates as other groups. So the biggest barriers we see are eligibility requirements. And once they move past those eligibility requirements, they do vote at pretty high rates.
RAZ: Right now, neither of the two main candidates seem to really be pushing for the Asian-American vote. President Obama's campaign has made some more efforts. Mitt Romney's campaign recently announced new initiatives. But still, it's been relatively small efforts. Do you expect that to change in the coming months?
WONG: You know, there are reasons - the reasons we just spoke about - to assume that the parties might start paying attention to this fast-growing community. At the same time, historically, the community has been the least mobilized group of the four major racial categories.
So survey after survey shows that when people are asked: Have you been contacted by a political party or a representative from a campaign, Asian-Americans are the least likely to say yes. Why is that? Partly because it's a vicious cycle. They're seen as low propensity voters. And then parties don't want to pour their resources into a group that might not turn out to vote at a high rate or might not come out strongly for them.
So 2012? I don't know if Asian-Americans will change the election in 2012. But I think if the political parties started to mobilize - starting from citizenship and registration - to invest in this community early, they will likely see payoff in the future.
RAZ: Janelle Wong. She's the director of Asian-American studies at the University of Maryland. By the way, just last month, President Obama said that with Virginia, he'll win the election. Both campaigns are expected to spend a disproportionate amount of money for that state's 13 electoral votes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.